When former QPR and Millwall goalkeeper Tony Roberts was forced to retire from League football, due to a finger injury in 1998, he could never have envisaged that only 7 months later he would be back in the game and about to embark on the most successful period of his footballing career.
I cannot imagine the heartbreak of being told as a 28 year old that your time in football is over, when that is all you have ever wanted to do in your life. It is full credit to the man then, that after a short time off for consolation, the former Welsh international decided seek out an alternative to hanging up his gloves and getting back into the game he loved. Since his retirement from the League, Roberts had been plying his trade for non-league side St Albans City. After a 2 year spell with the Hertfordshire side Tony signed for the Atlanta Silverbacks in America, whilst he was out in the States an American doctor at the club created a splint that fit in his glove and enabled Roberts to continue to play football.
With a new lease of life and no doubt a confidence he could get his so far faltered career back up and running, Tony Roberts signed for Dagenham and Redbridge in the Summer of 2000, he was brought to the club by his former manager at St Albans, Garry Hill. Roberts would go on to make over 500 appearances for the Essex club, scoring 1 goal in the process.
Tony’s first season between the sticks at Victoria Road was eventful to say the least. The newly promoted Daggers finished their first season back in the Conference with a third place finish. The Daggers also reached the 3rd round of the FA Cup where they were only minutes away from becoming the first part time club, to beat a Premier League team in the competition, only for John Salako’s injury time, deflected shot, (which Roberts had originally had covered) to force a replay. The Latics won the return game by a narrow 1-0 scoreline after extra time.
After just one season Roberts was already endearing himself to the Daggers faithful with his outstanding performances and his soon to become, infamous in game, jovial antics. This is something that would continue throughout his time at Victoria Road, not only was he able to have fun with his own supporters but he also liked to react to the opposing teams fans. Calls of “I predict a diet” would be met with a rub of the tummy and a dismissive wave. Roberts would very often end a match getting an applause from all sides of the ground thanks to his banter during the game with all fans. Coming out of his area and celebrating goals was commonplace as was his dancing. The Welsh stopper could not resist a request to bust some moves when fans would request it.
Dagenham and Redbridge would finish the 2001/2002 season as runners up in the Conference, the Daggers would miss out on promotion to the football league to Boston on goal difference. In the last home game against Chester which the Essex club won 3-0, Roberts disappointment was clear to see as the final whistle blew and news that Boston had also won filtered through from the crowd. Garry Hill’s men also reached the FA Cup 3rd round for the second successive season and just like the year before they played a Premier League side, this time it was Ipswich Town at home. Despite taking a 20th minute lead Roberts and Co were defeated 4-1. The Daggers nearly never made it that far into the competition though as, earlier on in the Cup they had faced Basingstoke Town in the 4th qualifying round, with time running out and Dagenham trailing 2-1 away from home, a certain Tony Roberts came up in the 4th minute of injury time for a corner and managed to lash home a right footed effort and equalise with the last kick of the game. He become only the second goalkeeper in history of the FA Cup to score a goal.
The following year would also be a great season performance wise for Roberts, yet again the Daggers were at it in the FA Cup, this time they reached the 4th round for the first and so far only time in their history. The 4th round match was against then second tier side Norwich City at Carrow Road. The Daggers battled hard and it looked as if they had done enough to secure a well earned replay, only for Zema Abbey to break the Essex club’s hearts with a 90th minute winner. Tony Roberts put in a man of the match performance on the day denying the Norfolk Club on countless occasions throughout the match with some top class saves. This season would also see Dagenham and Redbridge reach the inaugural Play off final which they eventually lost on a golden goal after coming from 2 goals down to Doncaster Rovers. In the Semi Final against Morecambe the match went to penalties after the two teams could not be separated after 2 legs of football. Guess who saved the crucial penalty and sent the Daggers through to the Britannia Stadium and another chance of promotion, yep, good old Robbo.
After losing the final in such heartbreaking circumstances it must have seemed to Roberts that his hope of returning to League football wasn’t meant to happen. The next few years were lean for the Daggers as Garry Hill left to be replaced by John Still, the Essex club were going through a transformation as they went from semi professional to full time and only finished in mid table mediocrity.
Then in the 2006/2007 season the dream finally came true at Victoria Road as Dagenham and Redbridge were at last promoted to the Football League. The Daggers secured the league title on the 7th of April with a 2-1 victory over Aldershot Town. Robbo lead the celebrations in what had been another great season for the Welshman. At last Roberts had returned to League football 9 years after he had thought it was all over. No wonder he couldn’t contain his excitement. The Cheers of “Robbo, Robbo” echoed around the whole of Dagenham when he spoke at the clubs celebration parade at the end of the season.
The keeper’s experience the following season was vital as Dagenham managed to stay in League 2. The very next season they just missed out on the play-offs, on the very last day. In 2009/2010 season though, they went one step further and secured a play off place, they beat Morecambe yet again at the semi final stage, this time with the help of a 6-0 victory in the first leg. The final at Wembley against Rotherham probably sums up what Tony Roberts was as a player for Dagenham and Redbridge. He was always the man for the big occasion and that day along with the rest of the team he stepped up. This was Tony’s first ever appearance at Wembley, he was 40 years old. Despite being the underdogs the Daggers managed to win the game 3-2 and reach the 3rd tier of English football for the very first time. It was all hands to the pump though from the moment John Nurse put the Essex side ahead with a whopping 20 minutes remaining in the game. Tony Roberts was always classed as a good shot stopper and intelligent keeper, but that afternoon was the first time I think I had ever seen him come out and punch the ball clear so many times. As the pressure mounted Roberts continually came to the edge of his 6 yard box and walloped away ball after the ball until the final whistle eventually blew. Robbo’s after game interview was typical, he even managed to play up to the camera with one of his famous dances as he strut around the pitch having his picture taken with overwhelmed, ecstatic fans. This was without doubt the greatest moment of Tony Roberts footballing career.
Tony stayed for one more season with the Daggers as the club only narrowly missed out on survival in League 1. John Still’s men lost on the last day of the season 5-0 to Peterborough and were relegated by just one point. After the game Roberts threw his gloves into the 1000 strong away crowd at London Road, we didn’t know it then but that would be the last time we would see this great man wearing the number 1 shirt for our club. After he retired for the second time, Roberts went on to become Arsenal’s full time goalkeeper coach, a job he had been doing on a part time basis up until then. After leaving that role he then became Swansea City goalkeeping coach as well as recently doing the same job for the Welsh national team.
Tony would admit himself that he wasn’t always perfect, and during his time at Victoria Road he made some right rickets. In a live game against Oxford United in the Conference winning season, with the score at 1-1 Roberts decided to run out of his area to retrieve the ball and take the ball past the on rushing attacker, only for him to completely air shot his clearance and in doing so gift the ball to the opposition who skilfully returned the ball 25 yards into the unguarded net. He was also not renowned for his kicking, many a time the ball would go straight out of play from a restart, so much so that I remember playing Championship Manager one year and every time the Daggers team I managed would have a goal kick the text that followed it was “and the ball goes out of play for an opposition throw”. Most of his errors, although sometimes quite costly were mostly met with a collective sigh around the ground of “Oh Robbo” and then no more would be said because the great stuff he did for us would always outweigh those little mistakes. Even to this day I miss the constant barking of orders coming from his 18 yard box throughout the game, something unfortunately that has never been replicated from any other number 1 since.
Tony Roberts was an absolute hero at my club, the like of which I don’t think we will ever see again. The sooner we build a stand at the Bury Road End of the ground and name it after the great man the better as far as I am concerned. I think we should also have a statue of him in the car park celebrating that Wembley success.
The word Legend is an over used one but in this case of Tony Roberts you will not find one supporter of this club that doesn’t think it is merited.
Thanks Tony for all the memories.
By Terry Spelman AKA Cockney Byrites.